The challenge for busy people is how to juggle all the tasks in a day to insure that the most important ones get needed attention and get done.
This is the essence of effective time management. You can learn from time management theories and then modify the system that fits you best.
The most effective way to capture what you have to do and then to prioritize it is using lists. They can be a very simple but powerful tool.
In Get It Done David Allen suggests having separate lists for different areas of your life. This can be very effective—but it also requires you to manage and refer to multiple lists each day.
Many people use a single simple to-do list. They put everything on that list that has to be done today. This is the method advocated by Stephen R. Covey in his now classic work, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.
The ABC System and the Time Management Matrix
When you have a list the next question is how to prioritize it.
David Allen advises against prioritization because he says that priorities change all day long. Stephen Covey advocates using the ABC system of prioritization to get the most important things done first. Covey acknowledges that at times you need to re-prioritize the list as circumstances change.
The classic system for prioritizing a list is the ABC system. This system assigns each of your tasks on your list a letter to signify its importance or urgency. “A” is for the most important or the most urgent. The “A” items need to be done first or need to be done today.
Assign the letter “B” to those things of secondary importance or less urgency. Assign the letter “C” to those things of least importance or urgency.
Within each category rank the tasks by their relative importance as well. Your list should have A1, A2, A3, B1, B2, etc. You need not be a slave to this. If an opportunity to finish B2 comes before the opportunity to finish B1 that is fine. If it is more efficient to group your tasks by their type as Allen suggests that can be effective as well. Setting aside a specific time to answer email or telephone calls for example can be more efficient.
Covey’s approach is easier for most people. There is value to giving your list prioritization each day to keep you on track but to be flexible enough to change that when you need to.
Covey also discusses the importance of giving adequate time to important things over urgent but less important things. He suggests that all tasks should be ranked by both importance and urgency, and that you should not be driven by urgency alone. Important tasks should take first priority and important + urgent tasks first among those. Less important tasks should take lower priority even if they seem urgent.
Covey divides tasks up along a quadrant or a matrix like this:
He calls this the Time Management Matrix. Ideally you want to give your time first to items in Quadrant I, next to Quadrant II, then III and IV last. It may not always be this easy but it is a good structure. His principal aim is for us to force ourselves to attend to the quadrant II items – those that are not urgent but are important and which so often get displaced by III and even IV items.
Examples of II items are prevention efforts, relationship building, planning, and recreation. The challenge here is to identify as each task or interruption arises which quadrant they fall in and to assign your time to them on that basis. This takes a lot of discipline and some real thought.
It is not as easy as it looks. How do you define what is important and what is not. For example, Covey assigns most telephone calls and other interruptions to the III quadrant, but what if answering that phone call will enrich a relationship – should it then be in the II quadrant?
This constant process of evaluating what you have to do, interruptions, and then comparing them to the other things on your list is a demanding juggling act most days.
This is not always easy to do, but in theory it is a good idea. Try to give attention to your more important tasks first, and give the least attention if any to those that are low in importance and urgency.
David Allen suggests the same basic juggling act—giving attention to those things your lists that are most important and most urgent. Allen also groups list items by type so that you can get the best use of your time. For example he advises you to answer all telephone calls or all emails at the same time because once you are on a role doing one task you get more done than jumping from one type of task to another.
The ABCD To-Do List–The Next Level in Time Management
If you would like to combine the best features of the Covey Time Management Matrix, the ABC method, and Allen’s re-prioritization process into one system, use the ABCD system.
In this system all your tasks are categorized on a single list as follows:
A = Urgent and Important
B = Important but not Urgent
C = Urgent but not Important
D = Neither Important nor Urgent
Use this much like the ABC system to initially organize your list and then reassess it throughout the day to make adjustments as circumstances require. As the day develops and things change you can reorder priorities as needed. You can move some tasks to another day if that becomes necessary. This will help you maintain focus and prevent the feeling of being overwhelmed.
I find that the ABCD system in this manner combines all the best elements of the other systems and allows you the most flexibility. It is the system I use. I recommend it.
What About You?
Learn from each of these approaches. Experiment in your own life and work. Find out what combination works best for you.
You do not have to follow one author’s advice exclusively and different people in different conditions will find different approaches work best.
The key is to give this the attention it requires, and develop a system that works best for you.
Daniel R Murphy | The ABCD To-Do List – The Next Level in Time Management